NEW YORK – The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays are built on a foundation of starting pitching and the triceps issue that forced Josh Johnson to skip his start Friday, the lingering tightness in R.A. Dickey’s neck and upper back, and Brandon Morrow’s recent issues getting loose have disturbingly destabilizing potential.
Depth in the rotation beyond their top six starters was an issue long before the recent run of aches and pains and Ricky Romero’s demotion to single-A Dunedin to rebuild his delivery, and the lack of palatable options is revealing itself now.
Aaron Laffey, plucked off the waiver wire Tuesday after the New York Mets discarded him, slid into Johnson’s place and while the move was convenient from a roster-management standpoint, there were no better alternatives within the system.
The triple-A Buffalo Bisons are stocked with been-around-the-block retreads like Claudio Vargas and Dave Bush, but no 40-man roster players of merit. Of the team’s prospects, only Chad Jenkins would be a worthy possibility, but he’s on the disabled list at double-A New Hampshire with a shoulder problem.
If Dickey can’t make his start Sunday — he threw a light bullpen Friday and pitching coach Pete Walker said, “I’m fairly confident that he’ll be out there” — the Blue Jays will almost be at coin-flip time to decide upon a replacement.
“It definitely hasn’t gone as planned, put it that way,” said manager John Gibbons, displaying a gift for understatement.
Make no mistake, what happens with the rotation in the coming week may be far more significant to the team’s chances this season than the slow start that has so many fans frothing at the mouth.
Johnson’s absence is expected to last for only one start — he underwent an MRI on Friday and was awaiting the results — but any deviation from that will be bad news, especially because with him sidelined, it becomes tougher for Dickey to get a break, too.
The knuckleballer deserves kudos for gutting his way through two starts with neck and upper back tightness, but the reality is it’s tough to eliminate the issue without rest, and pitching every five days doesn’t provide for that.
“R.A. won’t go out there unless he’s confident in where he is in his delivery, how he feels and the effectiveness of his knuckleball,” said Walker. “He had a good session (Friday), I’m sure he’s leaning toward (pitching), and we’ll see how he feels (Saturday) to make our final decision.”
Wisely, Johnson will try to nip in the bud his triceps tightness — “right when you release the ball, it feels like someone’s poking you with their finger, it doesn’t really hurt but if you end up pulling a muscle back there, it can set you back a long time” — but if he needs longer than expected and Dickey requires some time, too, the leading internal candidates to fill in may end up being Claudio Vargas or Dave Bush.
Toss in Morrow struggling to get loose before his outing April 19 — it may mean nothing given that he seemed fine against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, but bears watching — and the Blue Jays are walking a perilously fine line in the rotation.
Romero, who debuts his new mechanics Saturday for Dunedin at Brevard County, looms large and while the plan is for him to throw four or five innings, rushing him back before his motion is set could level all the progress he’s made.
No return is imminent, so right now he’s no magic bullet.
Further, if the Blue Jays do end up having to dip into their depth to fill out multiple rotation spots, the burden on an already overworked bullpen is likely to increase, and that’s also troubling.
April isn’t over yet and the Blue Jays already have five relievers with 10 or more games, and their total of 81.2 innings through Thursday’s play ranked second in the majors. That’s a pretty dreadful way to keep them fresh for the games of meaning they hope to be playing in September and October.
Given all that, it will be intriguing to watch what the Blue Jays do when Adam Lind rejoins the club from his paternity leave Sunday.
Reliever Brad Lincoln was recalled from Buffalo to fill the gap and he’d certainly be a good fit spelling right-handers Steve Delabar and Esmil Rogers in the occasional seventh or eighth inning.
But for him to stay, either a position player has to go (and unless Mark DeRosa’s calf and groin are still nagging enough for a DL stint, there’s no convenient move), or a pitcher needs to be cleared, which could be done by designating Laffey for assignment, or putting Johnson on the disabled list.
Johnson doesn’t think he needs a trip to the DL, but said he told the Blue Jays “if they needed an extra spot, they could go ahead and put me on the DL. I definitely don’t want to do that, but I’ve already gone five days or whatever so it wouldn’t be too bad.”
So much of the pressure on the Blue Jays here eases if it actually turns out that way, and the triceps tightness that materialized suddenly in his previous start disappears just as quickly, and the difficult decisions that potentially loom don’t have to be made.
The Blue Jays need their caution here to pay a near immediate dividend.
“It’s tough no matter when it is, you never want to miss any starts,” said Johnson. “How bad we’re going right now, that’s one of the things. But I had pretty much everyone come up and tell me to be smart. Be smart, we want you here in September and October and not right now, not as important.
“I’m thinking about being smart for once in my life. I don’t want it to linger on.”
Neither do the Blue Jays, for reasons on a number of different levels.